Reconsidering Gendered Sexualities in a Generalized AIDS Epidemic

By Christie Sennott and Nicole Angotti

In the rural area of Mpumalanga Province, South Africa that we study, HIV is estimated to infect 1 in 5 people. Many researchers have studied the social, biological, and behavioral factors that contribute to HIV infection and the consequences of high mortality from AIDS-related diseases. Yet, less attention has been paid to how people actually living in communities affected by HIV/AIDS talk about the epidemic in everyday life—a useful way for understanding how men and women experience a significant threat to their lives and the lives of those around them.

HIV/AIDS is a unique type of threat: it is transmitted sexually, potentially fatal, and therefore has wide-reaching consequences for men and women’s sexual lives. Whereas several studies have found that individuals work to “reaffirm” or recuperate long-standing norms governing gender and sexuality when those norms are threatened, we find that HIV/AIDS – which threatens not just individual lives, but also relationships, families and communities – provokes reconsideration of gendered sexualities at the community level. We define reconsideration as the processes through which men and women debate, challenge, make sense of, and attempt to come to terms with the social norms circumscribing gendered sexual practices. Our focus on reconsideration shows the multiple voices and commentaries on HIV/AIDS that are circulating in the community, and that ideas about masculinity and femininity are complex, contradictory, and evolving in everyday conversation and interaction.

Our data are ethnographic and collected by men and women from the community. Over several months in 2012, a local team of “insider ethnographers” wrote field notes capturing conversations about HIV/AIDS that they encountered in public settings, such as large community events like village meetings, and other venues where interaction is commonplace, such as at bus depots and at church. These data are ideal for understanding local ideas about threats like HIV/AIDS because they are captured in real time and show the multiple perspectives that come to bear on the social experience of living amid an HIV/AIDS epidemic.

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Forms of Femininities at the End of a Customary Marriage

By Elena Moore

Before the arrival of democracy in South Africa, the majority of Black South African married women were regarded as perpetual minors under the guardianship of their male relatives or husbands. They could not acquire or own property in their own right and customary husbands had absolute ownership of household property and the personal property (including earnings) of their wives. In the post-apartheid era new laws improved women’s access to economic resources from a marriage but evidence suggests that there continues to be structural and cultural barriers in African families and communities, making implementing these laws very difficult. For example, the pressure for Black South African women to be respectful towards their husbands and elders, including co-wives, husbands’ mothers and others, is pervasive. Some scholars argue that the dominant ideal of an African woman as submissive and respectful to males, elders and specific family relations remains. This may take the form of excusing extreme male behaviour, such as violence or infidelity.

I investigated the challenges women experience while negotiating their way out a customary marriage. A customary marriage is legally defined as a marriage in accordance with customary law, i.e. the customs and usages traditionally observed among the indigenous African peoples of South Africa and which form part of the culture of those peoples. These negotiations can take place with husbands, co-wives, and husbands’ families with whom they have unequal power relations. In particular I was interested in how their resistance operates in a broader context of disadvantage for Black South African women. Continue reading “Forms of Femininities at the End of a Customary Marriage”